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A giant armadillo building is hiding in the middle of Paris

Renzo Piano's new project brings organic modernity to a historic theater

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On a tree-lined boulevard in southeast Paris, an enormous creature is slowly coming to life. Nestled in a dense block of 19th-century buildings, the sloping glass structure looks like a metallic armadillo shell, but is in fact a new project from world-renowned architecture firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop. The building was commissioned by the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, a research organization dedicated to the history of cinema through the lens of Pathé — one of the world's oldest and most celebrated production companies.

The foundation tapped Piano’s firm to help build its new headquarters in 2006, located at the site of an old movie theater commonly known as the Rodin cinema. (As a young artist, Auguste Rodin created two sculptures for the building's facade.) There was already a rectangular building behind the historic facade, but it filled up an entire courtyard lined with apartment buildings, and Piano wanted to liberate the space. The practical solution, according to lead architect Thorsten Sahlmann, was something more organic.

"It was not that we just wanted to design an animal," Sahlmann says. "It was more that this organic shape better fit to the constraints of the site. We created useful space for the foundation while giving air and light to the neighbors living around. We couldn’t do this with a more rectangular-shaped building."

The glass top of the shell is supported by curved wooden beams and covered in semi-transparent aluminum panels, with a spiral staircase connecting the floors. Inside are the foundation’s offices, a 70-person screening room, and extensive archives — more than 10,000 films, most of which are silent. Most important, the building’s curvaceous design freed up more space in the courtyard, allowing room for a new garden and letting more natural light filter down.


The building's aluminum panels are milled to allow light through while maintaining privacy.

When viewed from above, the building seems as if it would stick out against the Haussmann-era buildings in Paris' 13th arrondissement — a bulbous, contemporary growth along the city’s historic skyline. City authorities have gone to great lengths to preserve Paris' landscape, implementing strict building restrictions and famously limiting the heights of new constructions to only a few stories. But some architects have pushed for a relaxation of these regulations, with architect Jean Nouvel saying in 2008 that it’s time "to stop thinking of Paris as a museum city."

Architects have pushed for a relaxation of strict building regulations

The Renzo Piano Building Workshop has plenty of experience melding the historic with the modern, having created the urbanist Centre Georges Pompidou art museum in central Paris, and built the Morgan Library in New York under similarly tight urban constraints. The key, Sahlmann says, is "keeping a layer of the history" without overwhelming it.

"The facade is a layer of the 19th century, and we’re adding a piece that's quite in-scale and respectful of what is existing," he explains, noting that the new structure is barely visible at street level.

"The building is not on the street crying, 'Here I am!' It's stepping away and sitting there, waiting for somebody to discover it."

The Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé is scheduled to open on September 10th. All images copyright and published with the permission of Michel Denancé

Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, Renzo Piano Building Workshop


An overhead view of the foundation's glass shell, when it was still under construction.